Materialism vs Minimalism: You’re Both Wrong

Fred Perrotta

In the same weekend, I watched The Wolf of Wall Street, a three-hour celebration of excess, and read the Lifehacker post, Why We’re So Materialistic, Even Though It Doesn’t Make Us Happy.

The two made for an interesting contrast. Jordan Belfort, a real person portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie, couldn’t get enough of anything: money, property, drugs, women.

Some members of the travel community take the opposite approach. They aim for minimalism or even asceticism. Their intentions are good, but some people use minimalism as a proxy for virtue.

The less I own, the better I am.

The Problems with Minimalism

Graham Hill’s New York Times editorial made the case for a simple life with few possessions. I agree with most of his points.

Spending less money buying stuff means you can save your money or spend it on doing things. Studies have shown that experiences make us happier than things do.

In response to Graham’s article, Charlie Loyd posted an interesting response on Tumblr.

Wealth is not a number of dollars. It is not a number of material possessions. It’s having options and the ability to take on risk…

Poor people don’t have clutter because they’re too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk…

If you buy food in bulk, you need a big fridge. If you can’t afford to replace all the appliances in your house, you need several junk drawers. If you can’t afford car repairs, you might need a half-gutted second car of a similar model up on blocks, where certain people will make fun of it and call you trailer trash.

He makes a good case. Minimalism can be expensive. I have that junk drawer of replacement buttons, old hard drives, and extra cables to who knows what. I live in a tiny studio, not out of a desire for simplicity, but because San Francisco is insanely expensive, and I can’t afford any more space.

Does wanting to have my bed and my couch more than a foot apart or in different rooms make me a greedy materialist? I think not.

Loyd’s case isn’t bulletproof. One can live simply without much money. Just look at some of the frugal nomads traveling the world like Clayton of Spartan Traveler. Of course, doing so in the US is much harder.

What’s the solution? Who is right? The materialists or the minimalists?

Avoiding a False Dilemma

Don’t let either camp convince you that this is an either/or choice.

Your number of possessions doesn’t matter. Owning 100 things or less doesn’t automatically make you a good person, or rich, or stress free.

You will avoid the stress of owning or carrying extra stuff. But, if you don’t have much cash around, you’ll face a different kind of stress when you need that thing.

The important thing is to understand your goals then figure out a way to reach them. For some people, the goal is to own very little and travel the world. For others, the goal is to own a home where they can raise a family.

Intent matters.

Consumption isn’t intrinsically bad, but mindless consumption is dangerous. Unfortunately, the latter is too often encouraged and practiced in the US.

Why Buy?

People buy stuff because they have a few dollars left over at the end of the month. Or they had a bad day and bought on impulse without considering the quality or importance of their purchase.

Did it get you closer to your goals or did you settle for the short-lived dopamine hit of getting a thing?

I’ve loved the phrase “pleasure delay” ever since I heard it in the movie Vanilla Sky. Pleasure is primarily in the anticipation, not the reward, even when buying experiences. If you put off a purchase a bit, you get to savor the anticipation and consider if it’s actually worthwhile.

Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory. -Gustave Flaubert

When I see something online that I want to buy, I save it in Evernote. Oftentimes, I completely forget about it. Obviously, it wasn’t that important. When I stumble across it again later, I realize what a waste it would have been.

If you’re an obsessive product researcher, like Jeremy and me, you’ll recognize yourself in Robert Murphy’s article, What I am Learning from a Self-Imposed, 6 Month Purchasing Freeze.

By stopping his researching and purchasing, Murphy was able to see through to the real reason why he bought certain items: fear, insecurity, powerlessness.

The lesson I take away from all of this is to be a conscious consumer. The same purchase can be drastically different for two different people. Buying a house could be a financial albatross, or it could be empowering.

Aside from travel, I spend my money on the excellent food in San Francisco and on attending concerts. These are my two favorite leisure activities, so that’s where I spend my money.

Some people think that buying clothes, especially expensive ones, is a waste. I like to invest in a few high-quality pieces. My jeans aren’t cheap, but I wear the hell out of them. They’re durable, so the cost per wear ends up being very low. Most importantly, when I dress well, I feel confident. That feeling is worth the investment for me. If I dressed in schlubby, ill-fitting clothes, I’d feel lousy.

We don’t want to contribute to the mountain of cheap, disposable junk in the world. We started Tortuga Backpacks to make a product that you could buy once and travel with forever. Even better, you aren’t just buying a backpack. You’re enabling life-changing experiences through travel. That’s a business we’re proud to be in.

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